Not just Rajiv Gauba as home secretary, but most of the secretaries appointed by the government on Wednesday to head various departments at the Centre will get a term of two years.
This time, of the 16 secretaries appointed, 12 will get a term of close to two years, something which had become a rarity in the Government of India’s top post. Of them, nine will enjoy more than three years at the helm, one more than Gauba, who will get a term of two years, according to the appointment rules for the home secretary. The others who get a fixed term are the Cabinet secretary, foreign and defence secretaries.
Compare this with the term of the officers who were appointed to the rank of secretary in 2013, in a similar exercise in June. Most of them had a residual service of less than two years. The change from then to now has been one of the key reforms brought in by the government to ensure continuity in administration at the top.
Former home secretary G K Pillai told Business Standard it is essential to offer at least a two-year term to the secretaries for them to show results. “In my time, I got almost a five-year term, but even then it had become a rarity.”
For the past few years, commentaries on India had been chafing at the all-too-brief term for secretaries in departments. The short-term of mostly a year-and-a-half for the top officer at the department meant he would spend half of his first year learning the policies of the department and get very little time thereafter to develop and spell out a future policy.
Though in the Indian government system, it is the minister who makes the policy as part of the Cabinet, the more salutary ones are crafted by the departments, with the secretary leading the team. Those policies are then presented by the minister for the Cabinet and then the legislature to approve.
According to department rules, he is assisted by a joint secretary who would head a sub-department, or in larger ministries, a full department. More than making new ones, the brief term has made it difficult for secretaries to implement policies set by the government. To overcome this problem, the previous government under Manmohan Singh approved a fixed tenure for the three secretaries. The Cabinet secretary’s post was set at two years during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
This has been one of the key reasons why governance in India has fallen short, as accountability of the officers tasked with making a scheme or policy work was difficult to fix, once he left office. In his book, Crusader or Conspirator? Coalgate and Other Truths, former coal secretary P C Parakh recounts how he was unable to switchover to auctions in his less than a year-and-a-half term at the ministry. It was to prove very costly for the economy.
Not in the case of Parakh, but often the short spells for departmental secretaries is matched by equally snappy ones for the ministers. Consequently, effective powers and institutional knowledge within the department is often wielded by far junior officers with none at the senior level to conceptualise, implement stable administrative procedures and policies that do not remain ad hoc.
“We have moved to fast-track the promotions to the secretary-level for officers from the 1984 cadre onwards,” said B P Sharma, outgoing secretary of the Department of Personnel & Training. “You will notice that without any need for executive orders, departments — other than home and defence — too will now have stability at the top,” the officer told Business Standard.
The disquieting trend had become pervasive after 2000s due to more than one reason. One of those was the increase in the age for entry into the civil services. An older cohort had less time to spend in their career and would arrive at the level of secretary, often past the age of 58 years. Since they retire at 60, the time available to them at the corner room is limited. The other is the reluctance among the officers to pick up a central assignment, which are mostly less “glamorous” than terms at the states. Indian Administrative Service officers are chosen for service in a state and then deputed to the central government. Many of them would move in only when options dwindled in the state.
The current set of postings is the first significant break with this long-term trend. As Sharma said: “It has taken quite a bit of juggling with the time frame of postings of civil servants in the lower rungs and has also entailed taking some hard decisions, to implement.”
Some seniors of the current crop, but with brief terms left in the service, have been bypassed. But it has started to yield results, as the table alongside shows. Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs in the finance ministry, Subhash Garg, will have a three-year term. Similarly Yudhvir Singh Malik as secretary, road transport, will have a two-year term, Ajay Kumar Bhalla as secretary, power, gets a three-year term to guide the critical power sector, while Ajay Prakash Sawhney will have an even longer four-year term at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
Even among those with a shorter term, the appointments committee of the Cabinet, which basically includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, has plumped for continuity at critical ministries like telecom. Aruna Sundararajan — though she ostensibly gets a one-year term — has already been officiating since March this year in the telecom ministry.